(What is this? See here.)
To my atheist brother
Greetings from your brother Paul. Long time no see!
As you know, Zeitgeist will be publishing our letters. So let me set the stage for the 400,000 people who will be peeking over your shoulder as you read this.
You and I were raised in Blaine, Minnesota by two loving Christian parents. We went to church together, we went to a private Christian school together, you dated my ex-girlfriend (but don’t worry; I’ve forgiven you), and we even attended the same University of Minnesota.
At university, the things we learned about biology, cosmology, and the Bible really tested our Christian faith. I came out the other side with what is, I hope, a more mature understanding of God. You came out the other side having lost your faith completely.
I’ve always respected you for your willingness to submit to what you think is the truth, even at high cost. Your crisis of faith strained some of your closest relationships. You lost Chloe, your fiancé. And you had to chart a course for a new career, because you had been planning to enter the ministry.
But I still think you’ve made the wrong choice. God is real, and I know he’s calling you back to Him.
We haven’t spoken much about these issues since our undergraduate studies. But as it turns out, we both decided to become professional philosophers! So I’m sure we both have some familiarity with the usual reasons given for believing or disbelieving in God.
My specialty is philosophy of religion, and I know yours is not, so I’m not sure how much you’ve read on the topic. But I do know that I now have pretty good answers to the tough questions you were asking during your crisis of faith, when I had no answers to give.
I’d also like to assure you that we all agree the cute syllogistic arguments from Anselm and Aquinas provide no reasons for believing in God. The case for God – what we call “natural theology” – jumped forward leaps and bounds in the last 60 years.
But I suspect that the arguments for and against the existence of God are not the real problem. I think we can both admit that even we philosophers rarely change our mind because of the arguments. We usually change our mind when something seems right to us, or seems wrong to us.
Given enough time, I think I can make a good case for the existence of God. But I doubt that would persuade you. What will persuade you is a personal encounter with the living God. So what I’d like to ask is not for you to read the latest arguments from Alvin Plantinga and Richard Swinburne and others. Instead, I’d like to ask you to keep your heart open.
Keep your heart open to the possibility that God is real, and that He loves you. You could even ask Him to speak to you. If He’s not there, then no big deal. But if He is there – no matter how unlikely you think it to be – then opening your heart to his presence could make all the difference in the world.
To my Christian brother
It’s always great to hear from you, though these 400,000 people staring over my shoulder make me a bit nervous. They weren’t there when I published “Physicalism, Supervenience, and the Ontology of Morals” in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research. I wonder why that is?
I appreciate your respect for my honest pursuit of truth. Of course I know you have the same passion; that’s why we both became philosophers!
You’re right that I’m not as familiar with contemporary philosophy of religion as you are, though I have read some Plantinga. You’re also right that we all usually believe things based on what seems right to us, though I do my best to follow the arguments where they lead.
My reasons for disbelief in God, especially, are probably the same reasons that most atheists have for disbelieving in God:
The world is full of pointless suffering that an all-powerful, all-good God would not permit. The universe does not appear benevolent, but instead indifferent to our pain or pleasure.
The major religions look exactly like what we would expect from ancient superstition, full of wild mythology and a grandiose picture our place in the world that doesn’t fit with what science has taught us.
There are hundreds of religions. If God wanted people to know him, why wouldn’t he communicate more clearly, so that billions of people weren’t mislead by a false religion? And why would he allow nearly a billion people around the world like me to see no evidence of him at all?
…and so on. I know there are Christians answers for these questions, but they were never convincing to me.
Finally, let me assure you I have kept my heart open to the possibility of God. In some ways, I would be quite relieved to rediscover God. I wish very much that I could live forever, and never be truly separated from the people I love. I wish I could believe that in the end, those who are persecuted on earth will be blessed in the afterlife, and those who are evil on earth will be punished. I wish I could believe that the Creator of the universe is my personal friend; that I’m on the winning team. So yes, I will always keep my heart open to the possibility of God.
Paul, you might think I wish you would “see the light” and give up Christianity. But I’m not sure I do. I see how your faith inspires you to serve others and help the poor, for example with the wells you helped dig in Zambia. I wouldn’t want to interfere with that.
Whatever Christopher Hitchens says, religion has not poisoned you. It has only made you a better humanist – ha! – and I wish you well.